On the other side of worry

How could he be so irresponsible and thoughtless, I said to myself as we drove along dirt roads in the deepening dark. Our 22-year-old son had gone off for a run in the twilight without telling us which way he was going or when he'd be back. We combed the back roads near our new home in northern Vermont. We knew Ian's routes included shortcuts through the woods, and - worse - a waist-deep stream crossing.

As we neared the stream, which flowed out of a reservoir, some arresting signs appeared in our headlights. "DANGER," the bold black letters warned. "Water levels may change at any time." I imagined how treacherous it might be to cross such unpredictable water in the dark. At every bend in the road I hoped to see a mud-splattered figure in running shorts. But we went on, mile after uninhabited mile, with no sign of anyone, until we arrived back at our own driveway.

A light was on in the kitchen, and - yes! - there Ian was at the sink. He was still sweating, but I put my arms around him and released a deep sigh. He seemed surprised. He apologized, but the look on his face showed he had no sympathy for needless worrying.

Two weeks later I drove out to the reservoir again, this time with a new friend who had invited me kayaking. She and I carried the bright yellow craft down to the water, stowed our picnic supper, and set out. I was so interested in learning about my friend, I hardly noticed that the bright steamy afternoon was turning into an ominous-looking evening. Some fishermen made comments about imminent rain, but their words slid off my consciousness like drops of water from a paddle.

For our picnic spot we chose a forested island. We sat down at a rustic campsite near the water and opened our containers of salad. A few charred logs lay in a circle of large stones. We talked about what a great place this would be for an overnight.

By the time we got to the cake, thunder was rolling in the distance. "Oh, it will probably blow over," I said carelessly. I gazed at the patterns made by the gathering wind on the water. We were the only ones left on the lake. The far shore was clothed in foliage. I felt embraced by the omnipresence of nature.

But the thunder was sounding closer and closer. Within minutes it boomed loudly, and raindrops pelted us. I took the beach towel from my backpack and drew it around my shoulders. Looking for shelter, my friend stepped along the rocky shore to where a pair of trees lay uprooted. Their vertical root system was tilted just enough to shield us from the rain. We huddled under it for a long time, while thunder blasted our eardrums, lightning flashed pink, and torrents gushed from the sky. Just when I thought the storm must be dying down, it would start again with impressive vehemence.

Our conversation melted into long silences. But I felt no fear - just a cozy sense of being wrapped in the beauty of the universe. It had been a very long time since I had sat outside and watched a thunderstorm. When the wind turned and the rain slanted into our tree-root shelter, we pulled our kayaks out of the water and took shelter under them.

For another hour or so we lay there swapping stories about thunderstorms and backpacking trips when things hadn't gone as planned. Our laughter made comforting counterpoint to the drumming of the rain on the kayaks.

"Maybe we will be spending the night here," my friend joked. But just before dark the last thunder died down in the distance.

"Ready to leave?" I asked my friend. She didn't budge. Maybe she was still apprehensive about the lightning.

"Let's just wait five more minutes," she said.

So we lingered awhile longer, then slowly packed up and prepared to head back. A photographer by trade, my friend wanted to take some pictures. I was in no hurry. The lakewater felt warm, and during our leisurely paddle back we talked about going for a swim before driving home.

We were hoisting one kayak onto the van in the dark when a familiar vehicle pulled up beside us. My daughter jumped out and put her arms around me. She and my husband had come looking for us - twice. They'd also gone to considerable trouble to secure a boat and paddle for a possible rescue operation. (Our son was away from home and so was saved from needless worrying.)

"Didn't you hear us calling you?" my daughter asked.

"I figured you'd had to wait out the storm," my husband said, "but that was two hours ago!"

The irony of being on the other side of worry didn't escape me. But I felt no guilt. I just felt that was the most fun I'd had in a long time.

"You had the biggest smile on your face," my husband said later that evening. There wasn't a tinge of resentment in his voice, and that didn't escape me either.

I can't say I'll never worry about my son again. But I think I'm one step closer to sharing his fearless attitude.

"Would you have worried about me if you had been home that night, Ian?" I asked him recently.

He paused. "It's hard to say," he allowed. "But I think it would have been a fun adventure to come looking for you." Incorrigible.

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